Plot to kidnap Michigan governor thwarted; 13 arrested, officials say

By Nathan Layne and Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – Thirteen people, including seven men associated with the Wolverine Watchmen militia group, have been arrested for alleged plots to take the Michigan governor hostage and attack the state capitol building, prosecutors said on Thursday.

The group aimed to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat and frequent target of Republican President Donald Trump’s ire, ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election, according to a criminal complaint filed in a Michigan federal court.

At one point, the alleged plotters discussed recruiting a force of 200 to storm the state capitol in Lansing and take hostages, but later abandoned the plan in favor of a scheme to kidnap Whitmer at her vacation home, the complaint said.

At a news conference Whitmer accused Trump of encouraging extremist groups like the “sick and depraved men” that targeted her, citing his refusal to condemn white supremacists at the recent U.S. presidential debate against Joe Biden as an example.

“When our leaders meet with, encourage and fraternize with domestic terrorists they legitimize their actions, and they are complicit,” Whitmer said. “We are not one another’s enemy.”

Internal U.S. security memos in recent months have warned that violent domestic extremists could pose a threat to election-related targets, a concern exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, political tensions, civil unrest and foreign disinformation campaigns.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said during congressional hearings in September that his agency was conducting investigations into violent domestic extremists, including white supremacists and anti-fascist groups. Wray said the largest “chunk” of investigations were into white supremacist groups.

Andrew Birge, the U.S. attorney for the western district of Michigan, said the FBI became aware through social media that a group of people were discussing the “violent overthrow” of Michigan’s government, prompting a months-long investigation that relied heavily on confidential sources.

The group of six facing federal charges — Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta — could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted on charges of attempting to kidnap Whitmer, Birge said told an earlier news conference to announce the charges.

“Fox and Croft in particular… discussed detonating explosive devices to divert police from the area of the home and Fox even inspected the underside of a Michigan highway bridge for places to seat an explosive,” Birge said, referring to planning to target Whitmer’s home.

Birge said law enforcement arrested several of the alleged conspirators “when they were meeting on the east side of the state to pool funds for explosives and exchange tactical gear.”

ACTION TIMED BEFORE ELECTION

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel disclosed additional charges against seven men affiliated with the Wolverine Watchmen militia group suspected of violating the state’s anti-terrorism act by conspiring to kidnap the governor and propagate violence.

“The individuals in custody are suspected to have attempted to identify the home addresses of law enforcement officers in order to target them, made threats of violence intended to instigate a civil war,” Nessel said.

Nessel said a total of 19 state felony charges were filed against the seven individuals, including counts for gang membership and for providing support for terrorist acts, part of a sweeping execution of warrants in more than a dozen cities.

According to the FBI’s criminal complaint, Fox had indicated on numerous occasions that he wanted to kidnap Whitmer before the national election on Nov. 3. On one phone call recorded in June, Fox said he would try Whitmer for “treason” after taking her hostage, the complaint said.

On one June video livestreamed to a private Facebook group, Fox called Whitmer a “tyrant bitch” as he complained about the judicial system and restrictions against gym openings due to the coronavirus.

“I don’t know, boys, we gotta do something. You guys link with me on our other location system, give me some ideas of what we can do,” Fox said on the video, according to the complaint.

Facebook said in a statement that it “proactively reached out and cooperated” with the investigation.

Whitmer was targeted by Trump for her efforts to enforce coronavirus-related social distancing measures, and he tweeted in April, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.”

Matthew Schneider, U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Michigan, said the arrests should send a message that violence will not be tolerated.

“All of us in Michigan can disagree about politics but those disagreements should never, ever amount to violence,” Schneider told the press conference.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut, Gabriella Borter in New York, Ted Hesson and Mark Hosenball in Washington, Katie Paul in Palo Alto and Karen Pierog in Chicago; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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